When not to give people the answer

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea – St Exupery

Do you remember those early days of the internet when people claimed, “content is king”? A lot of money was wasted worshipping at that altar. In a network, connectedness is more important than the stuff being pushed. As Roland put it, conversations, then relationships, then transactions. I think that puts transactions in their proper place.

I think that in the world of corporate training, this lesson has still to be learnt. A lot of value gets attributed to content. People, so we’re led to believe, want the course notes and the attractive binder and to be let in on the inevitable seven secrets.

I think this way of thinking betrays a pretty depressing view of the people to be trained. I think it assumes they are lazy and incurious. For almost any topic you want to learn about, the net makes a huge raft of content available and a plethora of ways to access well-curated versions of it. If people really want to learn about a piece of established knowledge, they’ll go find it for themselves.

So why would you offer training at all? Well, I can think of two broad reasons. The first is that you aren’t really after people making exciting discoveries for themselves; instead you just want them to be obedient and compliant. Fair enough, standard procedures have their place in organisational life. When I was a bumbling amateur pilot I preferred other pilots to stick to the rules when I was in the neighbourhood. Where this goes awry is when it’s not done straightforwardly. When the boss wants people to do things without exposing himself to the risk of actually flat out asking for them. So it’s dressed up as training to make it seem more palatable. Thus the subtext of many training briefs is: “can you train these people for me to be more assertive?”

The second reason you might go for training is for stuff where the established, explicit answers don’t seem to work. Because the learning required isn’t just intellectual. For example, one of my favourite topics: dealing with difficult people.  If that would succumb to just following a series of right answers, we’d all buy book like this and do what it says.

That doesn’t work because this is complex stuff and doesn’t yield to a best-practice approach. Handing a difficult conversations is a full-on physical performance and has more in common with riding a bicycle than solving a crossword puzzle. In that case, you need practice and exploration, hopefully with the support of others. That’s the kind of training I’m most interested in.

It needs to be designed on the assumption that people are smart and inquisitive… which means avoiding the standard training props and pretending there are explicit answers. And it means training for a network rather than a hierarchy; the trainer is more of a facilitator and he needs to resist the lure of the teacher trance. Instead, it’s really about embracing more interesting questions…

4 thoughts on “When not to give people the answer

  1. Roland Harwood

    Hey Johnnie. Great post as always. I stopped attending training courses years ago for this very reason and stopped using RSS a few years ago but now only ever stumble on your blog occassionally and usually by accident but it’s always a pleasure to read what you have to say. Needless to say I agree with it all. I’m currently a bit peeved for having not got a gig for not having the right ‘domain expertise’ which annoyed me as I think we had all of the right ‘non-domain expertise’ but that didn’t seem to matter as much. Anyway, your post reminded me of my dad whose stock response when asked a question was “what do you think” which annoyed me no end but actually was a lot more helpful in the long run. BTW I saw this quote recently and quite liked too: “Eventually everything connects – people, ideas, objects. The quality of the connections is the key to quality per se.” Charles Eames

  2. Johnnie Moore

    Thanks Roland. I remember Chris Corrigan explaining how he approach home schooling. He allowed his children’s curiosity to guide their learning. People worried that, say, they might be interested in maths.

    He explained that his son was excited by astronomy… and that led him to find out about maths.

    People will learn the important stuff, he says, because everything is connected.


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